In his appearance last Sunday on Fox News, Donald Trump reiterated that he would abolish all or part of the Education Department. News reports have implied this is another example of Trump’s extremism, but — in this case, at least — it may reflect the good sense of a businessman.
As in the private sector, government agencies should be required to justify their existence with hard evidence of their effectiveness, not merely feel-good mission statements. That rarely happens. Instead, the default position held by most politicians is that any government agency that exists should go on existing. We need to reverse that mindset, assuming that no agency will be funded unless it can prove its worth to the taxpayer.
Take the Education Department. It has a multi-faceted mission, but one basic test of its effectiveness must be whether American students leave school better at math and reading than they would have been in the department’s absence. It is not clear that they are. On the long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), American 17-year-olds made some gains in math in the 1980s, but scores have been stagnant for the past 25 years. In reading, scores have been mostly flat since the inception of the NAEP in 1971. Not an impressive record.
This is, of course, a superficial look at the data. There are many more intricacies to be analyzed, including demographic changes and the tendency for scores to rise among younger students before falling back in high school. I am open to persuasion by a more sophisticated analysis, but there is no prima facie case that the department is worth its $87 billion per year price tag.
That should concern people much more than it does. Our elected representatives should be breathing down the necks of Education Department officials, holding hearings, conducting investigations, setting up formal evaluations, and threatening to cut funding unless the department can prove it is getting results.
But instead they just sign the checks.